The picturesque town of Salò in northern Italy is opening what has been billed as the country’s first museum of fascism. The curators argue that displays—including propaganda posters, period photos and busts of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini—will illuminate a controversial period of Italian history. Yet local anti-fascist associations claim that the museum is backed by a prominent admirer of Mussolini’s legacy, and warn it could become a mecca for fascist nostalgists.
Inaugurated as the Museum of the Italian Social Republic, its name is a reference to the Nazi puppet state that Mussolini administered from Salò for 18 months from September 1943. During that time, thousands of Jews were deported, Nazi-fascist forces and rival partisans fought a bloody civil war and rogue militias defied law and order in the streets. Mussolini was eventually caught as he attempted to flee by crossing the Swiss border. He was executed by partisans in April 1945. His tomb is in the small Italian town of Predappio and continues to attract bus loads of neo-fascists each year.
The museum’s displays will explore the Nazis’ brutal occupation of Italy, as well as the multifaceted, underground resistance movement that attempted to oppose the occupation. According to a project proposal, which has been seen by The Art Newspaper, displays will include original newspaper clippings, photos, letters and fascist memorabilia, as well as audio clips of the Italian Social Republic (RSI) anthem and videos of the famed valedictory speech Mussolini delivered at Milan’s Teatro Lirico in December, 1944. Visitors will also be able to explore the republic via an interactive map, and enter a reconstructed bomb shelter from the era.
The museum will occupy an entire floor measuring 220 sq. m of the existing Museum of Salò (MuSa). Funds of €235,000 have been allocated, with €100,000 from the region of Lombardy, €30,000 from Salò town council and the rest from private sponsors who have not been officially named. The new space—which is curated by Roberto Chiarini, Elena Pala and Giuseppe Parlato—is expected to open this autumn.
The curators say the Salò museum is necessary because fascist history has been inadequately taught in Italian schools. They also note that Italy did not hold Nuremberg-style trials at the end of the Second World War for fears of compromising national unity, allowing Giorgio Almirante, a culture minister in the RSI, to found the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) party and fascists to take roles in post-war administrations. Perhaps as a
consequence, Italy struggled to reconcile itself with its authoritarian past, the curators say. “After the war, fascism was seen as highly negative; it was not even worth talking about,” Parlato says.
Neo-fascism and the current government
In October of last year, Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy party, was elected as the Prime Minister of Italy. Meloni’s party is a descendant of the MSI. Despite publicly attempting to distance herself from Italy’s fascist history, Meloni has appointed allies with neo-fascist backgrounds to top government positions. Ignazio La Russa, who was recently filmed with busts of Mussolini in his home, was made president of the senate.
“Fascism created a fracture down the middle of society that is still felt today,” says Chiarini, who is also president of the RSI Study Centre. As an example of such polarisation, Chiarini points to the ex-Communist politician Fausto Bertinotti’s recent claim that Meloni had carried out an “auto-da-fé” (a term that refers to the Spanish Inquisition’s condemnation of certain people as heretics). Lisa Cervigni, the director of MuSa, says it was necessary to explore fascist history in a balanced way. “We are interested in neither demonising nor defending the fascist era,” she says.
There have been previous proposals for museums of fascism in Italy. The town of Predappio in Emilia-Romagna, Mussolini’s resting place, and the Italian capital of Rome has each shelved plans for their own museums in 2020, with the mayor of Rome at the time claiming that “Rome is an anti-fascist city”. MuSa previously hosted a smaller permanent section on the Italian Social Republic and has organised temporary exhibitions on fascism in the past. One show in 2016, titled The Cult of the Duce, explored the propagandist glorification of Mussolini. The show sparked sustained protests from anti-fascist demonstrators outside the museum.
Each proposed museum has faced opposition. Accordingly, representatives of the National Association of Italian Partisans (ANPI) and the anti-fascist charity Green Flame Brigade have warned that the proposed museum in Salò could become a fascist pilgrimage site if it fails to adequately emphasise the influence of the Nazis in the “Republic of Salò”.
Lucio Pedroni, head of ANPI’s Brescia branch, stresses that his organisation is “not against” creating the museum in Salò. But he says more context should be given to fascist atrocities, and describes plans to depict daily life within the republic, with displays including children’s toys and period clothing from the era, as “ridiculous” and “banal”.
Perdoni warns that some of the items may be sourced from local fascist nostalgists, and claims that Marco Bonometti—a powerful businessman who Italian newspapers frequently describe as an admirer of Mussolini—is among the museum’s financial backers. Bonometti is the former head of the Lombardy branch of Confindustria chamber of commerce and regularly attends an annual mass in Brescia marking Mussolini’s death, according to the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano. He is also vice president of the Opera Pia Carità Laicale foundation, which owns the building in which MuSa is based.
A prospective catalogue seen by The Art Newspaper lists the provenance of display items as “Private—RSI Study Centre” but does not name the individuals who provided them. Pala says that “90 per cent” of objects and documents had come from “older collectors”, but denies that their owners can be described as nostalgists. Parlato argues that the items’ provenance was not a concern, because donors and lenders made no requests about which political perspectives should be emphasised.
Cervigni declined to confirm whether or not Bonometti is helping to fund the new museum. However, Gianpaolo Comini, who is on MuSa’s board as well as being a member of ANPI, says that Bonometti is the museum’s sole private funder. Describing him as a “generous donor” to MuSa, Comini says that Bonometti is interested in creating the museum for two reasons: because it could drive up visitor numbers, and because of his “sympathies” for the fascist era. Bonometti did not respond to a request for comment.
Cervigni says Mussolini’s museum in Salò is essential. “We owe it to the generations who know very little about this period of history,” she says.