Italy confronts its demons with debate over burial of Mussolini

The descendants of Benito Mussolini, Italy's dictator for 20 disastrous years, were locked in tense meetings yesterday as a new argument broke over the fate of Il Duce's remains.

The family were said to be bitterly divided over whether the body should remain in the family tomb in the Adriatic Sea town of Predappio, or moved to a grander location in Rome.

The row came less than two months after an unrelated argument pitted members of the clan against each other over whether the body should be exhumed for clues as to who killed him. The woman behind the initiative to move Mussolini is Carla Puccini, widow of Romano Mussolini, the jazz pianist who died earlier this year.

Speaking to Corriere della Sera newspaper, she said: "It's hard to know which way the decision will go, because members of the family have opposing views. For me, Benito deserves to rest in Rome, in a suitable setting." In two weeks they will assemble in a notary's office to try to resolve the issue.

One nostalgic Mussolini fan close to the family favours the Altar of the Nation, the vast marble monument to Italy in the centre of the capital, across the road from the balcony where Mussolini made his most inflammatory speeches. It is a choice that would rouse furious opposition in a nation still deeply split between Fascism's apologists and its sworn enemies.

If it is decided that Mussolini should leave the family crypt where he lies alongside the wife , Rachele Guidi, and their four children, for a grander and more imposing tomb in the capital, the town of Predappio might heave a sigh of relief. But in the longer term it would be in the soup.

"The presence of Mussolini is vital to the town," said Nicholas Farrell, the British author of a biography of the dictator. "Thousands come here every year, and they come to stand in front of his tomb and pay homage. They could still see the villa where he was born and so on. But there is a cult of Il Duce: we're talking about a man who many still see as semi-divine."

Last weekend, the 84th anniversary of Mussolini's "March on Rome" in 1922 which heralded his ascent to absolute power, some 6,000 black-shirted Fascist sympathisers descended on the town to pay their respects and fill up on souvenirs. Shops have a flourishing business selling items most European countries banned long ago: flags, lighters, beer tankards, bottles of wine, caps and other items emblazoned with Fascist, Nazi and SS symbols.

Would they continue to come if he was moved? It seems unlikely.

The rest of the family was yesterday observing a prudent silence. But one grandchild said: "Il Duce and his wife Rachele must be spinning in their graves".

One of the reasons for a move is the growing tension between the family and the biggest seller of Fascist and Nazi souvenirs in the town, Pierluigi Pompignoli. "For 20 years I've cleaned his grave every day," says Mr Pompignoli. Despite those efforts, he claimed, Mussolini's grave was in a parlous state. "I've offered the family €15,000 [£10,000] to refurbish the tomb." To which Carla Puccini replied: "I wouldn't accept so much as a bent penny from him."

Mr Pompignoli said yesterday: "Mussolini will never leave Predappio. He means everything to this town. This was where he declared in his will that he wanted to be buried.

"Mussolini was the greatest man who ever walked the earth," he added. "Hitler was a criminal, but Mussolini was great. This talk about moving him is the chatter of a few imbeciles."

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