They took his body into the city in the evening of the 28th of April, but it was well past midnight by the time they passed all the roadblocks and reached the particular square they had chosen as their destination. There they unloaded all of the bodies – eighteen in total – and arranged them in the forecourt of the petrol station. Then they stood guard, waiting for the sun to rise.
All the photos we have of that grisly display are in black and white, but the scene that the platoon of partisans led by Walter Audisio (aka ‘Valerio’) was trying to recreate had been witnessed by another anti-Fascist, artist Aligi Sassu, who painted it in full colour.
This was the spectacle that the Fascists militias of the Repubblica Sociale, under orders from the local Nazi command, made of fifteen partisans killed by firing squad in Piazzale Loreto, Milan, in August of 1944, and left out in the sun so that they could abuse and deride them the entire day whilst preventing their families from recovering the bodies. Now Valerio and his men wanted to return the favour, so they chose the same site to lay out the bodies of Mussolini, of his lover Claretta Petacci (who had been killed whilst trying to shield the Duce’s body), and of the lieutenants and former ministers of the regime executed the day before in Dongo. To expose them to public anger and derision, just like their comrades had been at the hand of the repubblichini.
Dawn came, and with it the first civilians who noticed the truck and its cargo. The news spread quickly, and soon the partisans – who had made no arrangements to face what was surely inevitable – found themselves powerless to protect the bodies from the crowd that was assembling in the square. The dead were kicked and beaten and spat on. They were pelted with vegetables and brown bread. A woman fired five shots into Mussolini’s chest, one for each of the sons she lost in the war. Somebody urinated on Petacci. This was allowed to go on until mid-morning, when the partisans were able to restore some order with the help of a group of firemen, who also washed down the bodies. That’s when they decided to hang Mussolini and some of the others by their feet from the roof of the petrol station, so that everyone could see them without having to push their way through. And because one of the chosen was Petacci (but why?), whose panties someone had removed, they had to secure her skirt first with a pin, then with the trouser belt of the partisans’ chaplain, don Pollarolo.
This is the classic shot, the one that entered into the collective public memory of that day. Bombacci, Mussolini, Petacci, Pavolini, Starace. Four leaders and a courtesan, put on display in death so that the people could mark the passing of the regime that had shamed and ruined us. There were other pictures. One, of Mussolini and Petacci on the ground, taken early in the day, accompanied some of the reports in the foreign press. Others didn’t surface for years, including a horrifying set taken later that day at the morgue, before the Duce’s autopsy. There is one of these images in particular that I cannot forget. It’s a portrait of the two lovers, arranged with incongruous tenderness so that they are lying side by side, arm in arm. Petacci’s body looks like it might have once belonged to a person. Mussolini’s no longer has a face. That head of his, which had been so symbolic of the power of the state – his signature pout, that famous cranium – is reduced to a pulp scarcely bearing any recognisable human features.
You can look at the picture if you wish, although I strongly advise discretion. It is in colour, like Sassu’s painting. It’s also the crudest document I have come across of the events of that day.
This was a true death party. The spontaneous street celebrations that followed the death of Margaret Thatcher – pace the Daily Mail – are not worthy of so dramatic a name. This, and not those, featured displays of genuine hatred. This, and not those, was mired in historic ambiguity and prepared the grounds for the political amnesia to come, substituting the blows, the fury of that day for the effort to document and understand what Fascism had been, and who had been complicit in it, therefore how it was bound to survive under different guises once the blood was washed off the pavement of that petrol station forecourt in Piazzale Loreto.
Even so, I couldn’t unequivocally condemn those grotesque and misplaced acts of revenge, not even those committed by people who had discovered anti-Fascism that very morning, of which there were certainly some and possibly many. The country was due its moment of grim celebration. Some people and not others happened to be there, on hand. And some of them would have been genuine victims of the regime, or people who had fought to overthrow it. Amongst these, those who were in charge – Valerio and his men – thought that we should have a death party, and so that is now part of our history. For better or for worse.
It strikes me too that the leftists who have censured certain expressions of joy at the news of Thatcher’s death – some of whom are comrades, all of whom I respect – may just have been wishing for levels of restraint and decorum that don’t belong in the real world. Which reminds me in turn of the report on the events of that April 29 published on the newspaper of the liberal socialist Partito d’Azione. It read in part as follows:
Past the remains of those who had been most guilty of Italy’s ruin, in silent procession, files the crowd. It’s a crowd of men, of women, who for a moment – in the glacial atmosphere of death that hangs on the square of the Fifteen Martyrs – has ceased shouting and expressing its joy for the liberation. We didn’t witness a single rash gesture before the corpses of these men, who paid with their lives for their heinous crimes, but this certainty only: that the people’s justice had been served.
It was a noble nation indeed that reacted with such heroic composure when tested by history. It’s a pity it never existed.