A few months ago I had a brief conversation on Facebook Messenger with a stylish middle-aged man bearing the heavy name of Caio Giulio Cesare, after the Roman Emperor, and perhaps an even heavier surname: Mussolini. I knew him: he’d been making headlines, he was running for office in the upcoming European elections. All over Italy, billboards with his smiling face were posted: Benito Mussolini’s great-grandson. He posed for a photograph, standing between two men holding black t-shirts reading “IS BACK” and “VOTA MUSSOLINI.”
He had just made his triumphal entry onto the Italian political strage, appearing in a video on the official Facebook page of the nationalist, quasi-fascist right-wing party, the Brothers of Italy—“Brothers of Italy, Italy has awakened” is the first verse of the Italian national anthem. He stood before the Colosseo Quadrato, perhaps the most famous example of fascist architecture in Rome, with Giorgia Meloni, the party leader best known for her heavily Photoshopped campaign posters, who announced her decision to have in her party “a professional, a military and a patriot” like Caio. He was honored, he said.
In the end I didn’t get my interview. Mussolini had media inquiries from all over the world, he said, and didn’t have enough time for me. “My name has been a burden sometimes,” he has said. “My family had to flee Italy two times: the first after the war, the second during the Years of Lead [in the 70s].”
Caio Giulio Cesare’s father, Guido (b. 1938), is the second son of Benito’s cinema-loving son Vittorio (1916-1997), a screenwriter and film producer who had a brief stint as an official for the Italian Social Republic, the Nazi puppet state led by il Duce in Northern Italy in the last years of WWII. After the war, Vittorio had disappeared for some months and then—poof!—he reappeared in Argentina with a forged passport in 1946.
Caio Mussolini was born in Argentina, raised in Venezuela, and before running for office in Italy, he lived in the UAE. Not the best personal history for a nationalist, that’s for sure. Nevertheless, he is a perfect Mussolini—that is, a perfect vehicle for fascist nostalgia. He is the great-grandson of the fascist dictator, and the grandson of a high-ranking Italian fascist who never repented. He also bears the name of Giulio Cesare in a country where the Roman legacy is not just something for the history books. Nowadays you might say that the fascist regime seeks to Make Italy Great Again, considers itself the true heir of the Roman Empire, and dreams of a new Italian Empire. The nostalgic longing for the good ancient days of Roman Italy is just one step away from fascist nostalgia.
In one of his first interviews this year, Caio Giulio Cesare Mussolini said: “I will never be ashamed of my family.” His granddad’s funeral featured blackshirts and Roman salutes; the Mussolini Museum was set up at the family home, in Forlì. But this family pride may not apply to the artistic and political career of his cousin Alessandra.
As the only two Mussolini left in the Italian public sphere, Alessandra and Caio Giulio Cesare are like a real-life Jon and Daenerys from Game of Thrones. “We took different paths,” Caio Giulio Cesare said of Alessandra. “She was an actress, then she was elected despite having no political experience. Whereas I joined the Navy, I have two degrees and speak three languages.”
Alessandra Mussolini is the eclectic daughter of Romano Mussolini, il Duce’s fourth son, and the niece of famous actress Sophia Loren. As a teenager, thanks to her aunt’s patronage, she started acting: in 1977 she had a minor role in Ettore Scola’s Una giornata particolare (A Special Day) which won a Golden Globe. She worked in the film industry in the 1980s, and did some glamour modeling—including posing topless for the cover of the Italian and German editions of Playboy in 1983.
Finally she tried her luck with pop music: in 1982 she recorded an album of romantic songs sung in Italian, English and Japanese, titled “Amore” (“Love”), which was released only in Japan. Before the internet made it available for everyone on YouTube, the album was something of a collector’s item; in 2000 a copy was sold in London for 10 million old Italian lira (roughly 5000 euros).
Ten years later, having decided to quit acting when a producer asked her to change her name, she entered politics, joined the fascist party Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) and became the first MP named Mussolini in the history of the Italian Republic. She later allied with Berlusconi, strongly defended traditional family values, even as her husband was involved in a child prostitution trial that inspired a Netflix show, and was two times (in 2004 and 2014) elected to the European parliament.
Alessandra and Caio Giulio Cesare are two sides of the same Mussolini coin, representing two different strains of neo-fascismo. Caio Giulio Cesare’s is the old-fashioned, nostalgic, conservative neo-fascism that sees a historical continuum between Rome and fascist Italy and idolizes strong leaders who, like him, joined the Navy and speak three languages. Alessandra’s fascism is different: she could even be viewed as “progressive” on many issues, ranging from abortion to gay rights (though she called a transgender MP “faggot” in 2006); hers is a more soft, hip aesthetic that still in the end celebrates with fascist-themed cakes and awkward fascist-themed rap videos.
After the war ended, a division in the Italian collective conscience persisted among those who viewed fascism as the absolute evil and those who were somewhat sympathetic to it. The Years of Lead, that season of political terrorism which claimed hundreds of lives, cemented this division. It’s all still there, buried under decades of repeating like a mantra of national reconciliation that fascism is wrong, that fascism is coming back, that we should not let that happen.
We have an expression to summarize all of this: “Piazzale Loreto.” It means “Loreto Square”—that is, the square in Milan where the bodies of Benito Mussolini and his mistress Claretta Petacci were left hanging after the Italian partisans captured them in Dongo, near Lake Como. The pair had had been trying to flee to Switzerland in disguise; they were discovered just a few miles of the border; the next day they were taken to a villa in nearby Giulino di Mezzegra, and there they were shot. It’s like a spell, something that we say to remind every wannabe political strongman of what comes next. “Piazzale Loreto,” as in “you don’t want to end like that, do you?”
That spell still works. Right-wing populism is on the rise again everywhere in Europe and the world: we used to hear about how the European Union gave us decades of peace and prosperity, while now we hear about how it ruined us. Left-wing parties are struggling to stay afloat, while the Right is slowly sliding towards far-right nationalism. In France Marine Le Pen’s Front National is the second biggest party, in Germany the neo-nazi AfD is gaining strength, in Spain the far-right party Vox got 10 percent of the vote last year and the UK is simply a mess.
But for us, fascism is less something that we fear and more something that we observe, amazed and ashamed. It has become some kind of joke. We laugh about a Mussolini called Caio Giulio Cesare and his lame obsession with honor; we ironically listen to Alessandra’s love songs in Japanese and stand embarrassed watching her beefing with Jim Carrey on Twitter (r/ThatHappened).
But maybe the spell is working too well. We have grown accustomed to this kind of odd, harmless folk fascism, but only as a reminder of our dark past, not as a threat to our present. Caio and Alessandra Mussolini, we conclude, are hardly relevant; they are capable of making headlines only as a journalistic novelty. So they’re not dangerous. So the far-right is not a problem. Fascists get like what, zero point something percent of the vote? Neither Caio nor Alessandra could even manage to win election to the European parliament.
But at the same time, we’ve just had a right wing populist government, widespread racism and neo-fascists with air-to-air missiles hidden in their homes. At the same time, the most prestigious literary prize in the country this year went to a novel about Mussolini that starts like this: Lui è come una bestia: sente il tempo che viene. He’s like a beast, he smells the times that are coming.