But the present leader was nowhere to be seen. He was away in Rome, a minority partner in Silvio Berlusconi's Freedom Alliance government, helping to run the country.
Gianfranco Fini is in essence a fascist, and the first leader from the extreme right since the fall of Communism to have entered government in Europe. In December, the Freedom Alliance fell from power when the other minority partner, Umberto Bossi's Northern League, defected, and at present Italy is ruled by an interim government of technocrats. But a general election is expected within months, and Fini is preparing for even greater success.
He took a key step in that direction in January when, at a conference in the central Italian spa town of Fiuggi, he dissolved the avowedly neo- fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) and subsumed its membership in his new party, Alleanza Nazionale (AN). In doing so, he purged the most hard- line figures in MSI, while retaining the allegiance of the overwhelming majority of the party. Thus sanitised, he visited London and Paris last month to reassure bankers and conservative politicians
of his moderation and acceptability. He braved the wrath of several hundred anti-Nazi demonstrators to address the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, where he gave a polished and masterly overview of the Italian political landscape.
Back in Italy, a recent opinion poll made him the most popular choice to be prime minister out of all possible candidates, and that goal no longer seems absurd. Even his bitter political enemies concede that he is impressive. One life-time left-winger told me, "I can't believe I'm saying this, but he's the only politician in Italy who makes any sense." He has the happy knack of persuading crowds that he is nice, cultured and above all furbo, smart. Face-to-face, the radiant smile is switched off and he appears dry, chilly and rather hard-boiled.
Less than two years ago, Fini described Mussolini as "the greatest Italian statesman of the century". Now he does not so much as utter the late dictator's name if he can possibly avoid it. But is it possible that this politician - and his followers - can have changed their spots?
You know the company you are keeping. But still it comes as a shock.
We are under the strip lights of a caf-snooker hall-computer games den in a place called Prenestino, a sad, sprawling, car-choked satellite town of Rome, with too many shiftless young men and not enough street lights. The local branch of Alleanza Nazionale is giving a dinner for Teodoro Buontempo, the promi- nent and popular AN politician. Short, fiery, in-exhaustible, he has been galloping about all day. Now he is among his own, wolfing down red wine and penne al'arrabbiata and boar steaks.
Buontempo - "Er Pecora", the sheep, nicknamed for his tight curly hair - turns to the young man sitting next to him and announces that he's got a present for him. He fishes it out of his pocket. It's a gold watch. The face is inscribed with that unmistakable profile of the man who proverbially made Italy's trains run on time, and whose name has for the past 50 years been a sort of curse. Instead of numerals one to 12, the watch has letters. They spell out duxmussolini.
Buontempo's long day, fuelled by coffee, nicotine and grappa, is not over yet. We get back into the black Mercedes and his driver, a man with a shaven head and massive chest, a former Italian champion of tae kwon do, bullies the car through another 25 miles to the town of Frascati, in the hills south of Rome. For an hour in a local television studio, Buontempo fields calls in a phone-in programme. When it's over he declares that he wants to show us his house in the mountains, high above Rome.
It's a long grind uphill through hairpin bends in the fog. The house is zany, built on a steep slope, and full of ornate brick and tile work executed by Buontempo himself. It's also full of memorabilia: the collected works of Mussolini - some two dozen volumes; a painting of the great man, superimposed on a storm-tossed sea, by his grandson Romano; a bottle of wine, "Vino Nero", the black label emblazoned with a bundle of fasces and the letter M - a nd bottled in Predappio, where the great man was born. There's a huge volume of Mussolini's writings, the cover a bas-relief in pewter of Mussolini's head. Buontempo's house is a shrine to Il Duce.
Buontempo's people, the hard core of supporters on whom Fini's new party depends as much as the old one did, are the onlookers at the feast. When Italy's new constitution was inaugurated in 1948, all the political parties, from the Communists to the Christian Democrats, were within the "Arc of the Constitution". Only one grouping was left outside: Movimento Sociale Italiano, the party formed by officers from Mussolini's Republic of Salo. The political heirs of the man who had led Italy for 20 years were treated like "parliamentary lepers", to borrow Harold Wilson's phrase.
MSI's supporters were those nostalgic for Mussolini's rule - veterans of Salo, demobilised soldiers, low-ranking civil servants, those who had benefited from it, and the irreconcilable enemies of Communism. Most of the time, they were politically insignificant, rarely capturing more than five or six per cent of votes. Crucially for the party's present good fortune, they were never once invited to dip their snouts in the trough of government. That accounts for much of their appeal now.
Today, a vast chasm appears to divide the leadership of AN from its supporters at the grassroots. Gianfranco Fini, like Berlusconi and the nation's other top politicians, dwells in television land, where, handsomely suited, glasses twinkling, he capers winningly before the viewers. I switch on the box in my hotel room and there he is in a studio improvised in a carpet emporium, being interviewed by a group that includes a large woman who has a spect-acular cleavage and is wearing lacy underwear and nothing else. Fini goes through his paces, talking about his family life and so on, a little wearily it seems. The next night he'll be doing it again on another channel.
His people, however, those who have given MSI their unflinching support through the barren decades, are still in the wilderness. Ostia, the constituency where Buontempo last year won 52 per cent of the vote, is a beach resort 15 miles west of Rome, famous for its filthy beaches and archeological remains (it was the beach resort of emperors, too). It's famous, too, as the place where the poet and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini tangled once too often with rough trade, and was murdered for his pains. An abstract memorial in travertine marble stands on the front.
Ostia is the place where Mussolini's plans for Roman glory finally curdled. His idea was to thrust a mighty autostrada from central Rome, the Via Ostiense, to Ostia, which would be developed as a model garden city. It was a sensible as well as a visionary project, and it is a pity that it was not executed. Because what post-War Italy has managed to provide by way of a substitute is a dreadful abortion. The new town is a densely crowded grid of high, ugly tenements with minimal space between them, the relentless sprawl reaching right up to the edge of the beach. Where the housing stops, at the north of the town, a shanty village of cor-rugated iron and salvaged rubbish harbours some of the area's numerous gypsies.
Many of the town's tenements are the result of what the Italians call "abusivismo", when homeless people squat a plot of unbuilt-on land and if they succeed in raising a roof on it overnight, they can claim a right to stay put. Driving around, Buontempo points out numerous communities of what look like perfectly normal houses and apartment blocks: all were in fact built by squatters. Their residents then find they have a roof but all other services, including water and electricity, are missing. They use politicians like Buontempo to try to persuade the authorities to lay on amenities.
The squatters are one of Buontempo's natural constituencies, but in some cases it is those menaced by squatting who see him as their friend. In the afternoon, we drove over to the town cemetery, a walled area of a couple of acres which is completely full up - to the extent that many of the gravestones are no more than panels in high stone walls. When someone in Ostia dies, he must now be taken on a half-day's journey to the other side of Rome for burial. The townspeople want the cemetery expanded - it has open farmland on two sides, so the idea is feasible. But the land is becoming hemmed in by squatters who are suspected of greasing the palms of local politicians. Buontempo is backing the fight to have the cemetery enlarged.
In his History of Contemporary Italy, Paul Ginsborg, the authority on Italian politics, writes, "In many urban areas of the south, the neo-fascists came to be recognised as the representatives of the marginalised sectors of society, the champions of the deprived, in a society of increasing affluence..." Buontempo conforms exactly to this model. While Christian Democratic and Socialist politicians channelled funds and favours to their supporters, Buontempo is a sort of ombudsman-at-large to the unrepresented, busily doling out advice and instruction to anyone who cares to ask for it.
But criss-crossing the countryside, we encounter odd social phenomena of modern Italy which make Buontempo see red: the African prostitutes who infest the woods around Ostia, for example, and the camps of gypsies along the verges of the main roads, whose smoke and dirt and thieving weigh heavily on the minds of nearby property-owners. His comments are pithy and tough. Regarding the prostitutes: "Send a couple of carabinieri into the woods on horseback, that would soon get rid of them." Regarding the gypsies: "If they are really nomads, they should be obliged to move on every ten or 12 days. If not, they should integrate into the structures of our society." At these moments he sounds like an Italian Norman Tebbit and, to a certain constituency, his appeal is the same.
Driving through central Rome, at the foot of the Campidoglio, we come across a demonstration by several hundred taxi drivers, strik-ing against the city government. Late for an appointment as usual, Buontempo wanted to plough through, but he was quickly recognised, hauled out of the car, pummelled on the back, his hand shaken, a megaphone pressed to his lips before he was able to wriggle free again. "Er Pecora," they cried, and gave him three cheers. If they laid it on specially for me, it was slickly done.
Social action on behalf of the dispossessed, with a little old-fashioned iconography thrown in - if that is all Italian neo-fascism amounts to, pre- or post-Fini's purge, it's hard to know what the fuss is about.
But, of course, it is more than that, and for a more Olympian view we are directed to the large and comfortable apartment of Pino Rauti, in hills north of Rome.
The framed drawing on Rauti's living room wall is arresting: the corpses of Mussolini and Clara Petacci upside down in Milan, while a disembodied and spectral Ezra Pound broods on the scene. Rauti has a thing about Pound: Pound's poem "On Usury" adorned his campaign leaflet for the European Parliament (he won). Rauti is the genuine Fascist article: he ran away aged 15 to fight for the Republic of Salo, and has continued fighting for the cause since.
Perhaps it was only for the benefit of a fastidious foreigner, but Teodoro Buontempo had been at pains to distinguish Italian Fascism from German Nazism - specifically the obsession of the latter with race, which he said was "completely alien to Mediterranean culture". This is not a distinction that bothers Pino Rauti much. On the contrary, he says, the greatness of Mussolini's invention was that it was widely imitated (including, of course, by Hitler). "Everyone is forgetting", he told me, "that Mussolini's dictatorship sparked off analogous experiments all over Europe... The Italian national dictatorship saved Europe from Communism. To do that, it had to be authoritarian and totalitarian."
Rauti does not advocate a return to dictatorship, but his world-view, now Communism has fallen, remains one of stark confrontation. The enemy now is the world financial and trading system, in which big capitalists and bankers grow ever fatter on the Third World's slave labour while rapidly reducing the planet to the condition of "a single supermarket". His answer is one of thoroughgoing protectionism, for both agriculture and industry, while transforming Italian democracy by realising what Mussolini called "corporativism" - a chamber of deputies elected to represent the professions.
Rauti, in other words, is a wild-eyed idealist, whose ideas are about as relevant to Italy's present crisis as those of the Flat Earth Society. And it is Gianfranco Fini's great good fortune - and probably a measure of his considerable guile - that Rauti and he now find themselves in two different organisations.
It was in January, in Fiuggi, that MSI's final conference was held. It was the final one because Fini announced that - with Alessandra Mussolini's blessing - he was "with pain" dissolving the organisation. It was remodelled as a mainstream right- wing party, Alleanze Nazionale, shorn of all reference to MSI's historial roots. Amid accusations of rigging the conference, Fini none the less managed to transfer more than 90 per cent of MSI's membership to the new organisation. A rump of hardliners led by Rauti refused to go with him, vowing to keep the old party going under its old name and its old logo.
Now practically every time Rauti opens his mouth, it is to attack Fini - and that must be music to the latter's ears. For, with each attack, Fini's insistence that he has left Fascism behind gains credibility. And meanwhile Fini himself inhabits a different universe, where power is not a fantasy but a fact. Buontempo slums with the dispossessed out on the ring road; the last time I saw Gianfranco Fini it was at a meeting of Le Donne di Polo, "The Ladies of the Freedom Alliance", at the National Hotel, opposite the Italian parliament, among the furs and diamonds and scent of Rome's bourgeoisie.
In his speech at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, it had been hard to detect even vestiges of the school of thought from which he comes. Fini pulled out all the stops in order to appear the Italian equivalent of a French Gaullist, a British Tory or an American Republican - the sort of animal which, according to Pino Rauti, has been extinct in Italy since 1876. But the kinder, gentler sort of neo-fascist ideas, those which, it seems, motivate Teodoro Buontempo in his daily do-gooding, were there to be winkled out.
"If I have to give a definition of the Italian right," Fini said, "I must use the word `social'. It is vital in carrying out a liberal policy to be able to protect the weaker groups." And again: "We believe that it is possible to have privat- isation, liberal economic policies, free move- ment of capital, all that represents a liberal attitude - while still protecting the weakest parts of the population."
It sounded innocuous enough. Placed along the philosemitism, the approval of anti-fascism, the holocaust denunciation, the professions of friendship towards the Balkans, it sounded like just another gambit in Fini's attempt to become supremely cuddly.
But these "weakest parts of the population" - these are not some abstract entity to whom ritual obeisance needs to be paid. These are the people who, as supporters of MSI, have been for nearly half a century starved of the favours and bungs and jobs and public projects that supporters of the Christian Democrats and the Socialists took for granted. The "weakest part of the population" is precisely Fini's core constituency. And to keep them on side he will have to keep them sweet.
Paul Ginsborg maintains that in just eight months in office with Berlusconi, Fini and his AN colleagues have already set about doing that. "It was just the old clientilism all over again; his people did nothing but eat up jobs. Particularly striking was the activity of Giuseppe Taparella at the ministry of posts and telecommunication, who brought to the job all the qualities of a traditional southern patron, rewarding clients for their electoral fidelity.
"It's only to be expected," Ginsborg went on. "They've been out in the cold so long, as soon as they get inside they grab the doughnuts."
By this reading, the real danger posed by Fini is nothing to do with ancient Fascist bogeymen being raised from the dead. Rather it is that, far from extirpating the political and economic ills that have brought Italy to its present state of comprehensive crisis, he will be obliged (if he wants to be re-elected) to give the handle of the honey machine another hearty crank.
By the time he's done, in fact, Italians will really be clamouring for something new - a strong man, one who can balance budgets, drain the marshes, get the trains to run on time...