A Wise Unknowingness

A Wise Unknowingness

"There is such a thing as a moral atmosphere." So said Violet Gibson, the woman who shot Mussolini.


After defending such clients as Sacco and Vanzetti and Charles Ponzi (yes, that Ponzi), my paternal grandfather, a lawyer and Jewish Italophile, published in 1930 a slim book, Italy and Your Senses, which is not, as the title suggests, a poetic tribute to Italian art, topography or people but rather a valentine to Benito Mussolini, whom he considered the resurrection and the light.

I mention this to show that while my grandfather’s infatuation with Mussolini was extreme, he was not alone. Italy’s fascist prime minister was one of the country’s great tourist attractions in the Roaring Twenties, for Mussolini was a charismatic showman–after all, he liked to pose, à la Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, without his shirt. No matter that his political philosophy was hollow at the core, as Frances Stonor Saunders points out in her superb new book, The Woman Who Shot Mussolini, or that between 1922 and 1943 Il Duce sent at least a million people to an early grave. He remained, for a very long time, the darling statesman of the conservative press and the fashionable fascists of Europe, although they conceded that he might be a bit hasty and brutal. Still and all, according to the British ambassador to Italy, Mussolini was "like any other gentleman." The King of England decorated him with the Order of the Bath, and Austen Chamberlain, the British foreign secretary (whose half brother was Neville, future prime minister and champion of the Munich accord), considered Mussolini a sincere, charming patriot, and certainly preferable to any other "Italian." Sure he was a dictator, the foreign secretary admitted, but one simply could not "apply British standards to un-British conditions." As Saunders acidly comments, Chamberlain’s remark "contained all the narrowness and smugness of an imperial conceit."

Not so the epigraph in Saunders’s new book: "There is such a thing as a moral atmosphere." Those are the words of Violet Gibson, who happens to be the woman who shot Il Duce in 1926, although she only nicked his nose. Indeed, a moral atmosphere pervades Saunders’s often poignant tale of the Irishwoman, labeled mad, who possessed both gumption and a pistol, which she tried to use to change the course of history. Yet there is nothing tendentious about The Woman Who Shot Mussolini; rather, its wit and modesty, especially on the question of why Gibson did what she did, make the book a beguiling detective story and, as such, a meditation on the limits of biography.

How much can we know about another person? In the fall of 1924, Violet Gibson arrived in Rome carrying a revolver. She intended, or so it seems, to kill the Pope–even though, born into a prominent Protestant household in 1876, Gibson had converted to Catholicism at 26. But she also deplored what she considered the pontiff’s Faustian pact with fascism, for Gibson’s Italy was the land of Fra Angelico, not of thugs dressed in black. And just the preceding spring Giacomo Matteotti, leader of the United Socialist Party, had been abducted, brutally beaten and then stabbed to death; his body was taken to the outskirts of Rome, sexually assaulted and then tossed into a ditch. The crime outraged Italians and much of the world; yet Mussolini suavely denied having anything to do with the assassination, although it was widely accepted that the murderers had acted on his behalf.

Gibson took lodgings in the convent of Our Lady of Lourdes but spent most of her time visiting the Colosseum and Trastevere, on the west side of the Tiber, to help poor people, as she later told her Mother Superior. Trastevere was also known as a watering hole for Catholic dissidents, and it was later suspected that Gibson might have been trafficking in radical politics. A member of the Anglo-Irish elite who had been presented as a debutante at the court of Queen Victoria, Gibson was the daughter of Lord and Lady Ashbourne. Her father, the conservative lord chancellor of Ireland, had drafted the Land Purchase Act of 1885 so that Irish tenants could acquire land on favorable terms. It wasn’t exactly home rule. The lord chancellor’s son Willie, Violet’s eldest brother, would have none of it. A nationalist, a liberal and a Catholic, just unlike his father, Willie in turn influenced the young Violet in her conversion to a Christian socialism that owed much to George Tyrrell, an Irish Jesuit theologian, and Ernesto Buonaiuti, both of them modernists committed to social reform and compassion above and beyond papal autocracy.

Yet a restless Violet Gibson fit the profile of the neurasthenic, that handy catch-all nervous disorder usually associated with unfulfilled women. (Virginia Woolf is a strong presence in Saunders’s book, although it’s a stretch to compare Woolf’s madness with Gibson’s.) In her youth, Gibson had briefly flirted with Christian Science, theosophy and the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. Relatively affluent, she shuttled between London and Europe. During World War I she became a pacifist, though whatever political activism she may have undertaken was interrupted by a series of illnesses: Paget’s disease, a subsequent mastectomy, appendicitis and peritonitis. Then in 1915 Gibson met John O’Fallon Pope, an American Jesuit at Oxford who preached the need to demonstrate a love of Jesus through action, not words. That seems, in retrospect, to have set her on the royal road to Rome. Still, she was unwell, and after the sudden death of her brother Victor in 1922, Violet suffered what seems to have been her first breakdown. In 1923 she attacked her housekeeper’s daughter with a knife, though she insisted she had been acting on behalf of "God and his Church."

Violet Gibson subsequently landed in Rome, where in the convent she tried to shoot herself in the heart. Never a good aim, the bullet lodged in her shoulder bone. "I wanted to die for the glory of God," she confided to a friend, but having failed she needed to find another way to serve him. Saunders speculates that the signing of the Locarno Pact with France, Germany, Britain and Belgium later that year, with its refusal to stand against Italian fascism, may have prompted Gibson to set her sights on Mussolini instead of herself (again) or the Pope. Thus it was on what Saunders calls "a normal Fascist morning," April 7, 1926, that the 50-year-old Violet Gibson, wearing a shiny old black dress, carried a revolver wrapped in a black veil to the Campidoglio, where she shot Benito Mussolini at point-blank range. Gibson said she did it to glorify God. "A strange God, this," dryly comments Saunders, "who tells Violet Gibson to shoot Mussolini and then instructs the bullet not to kill him."

God notwithstanding, did Gibson act alone? If not, who were her accomplices? The Italian police, after her suicide attempt, had confiscated the revolver she had brought from England. How had she contrived to find another? Was she, like Willie, involved in Irish revolutionary politics? How to explain the balance in her bank account, which exceeded the annual income she received from her father’s estate? Was she insane or feigning madness in order to avoid punishment? And, as Saunders puts it, can someone "who pretends to be mad claim to be sane?"

The prime investigator of the Gibson case was chief superintendent Epifanio Pennetta, a methodical man without an overt political agenda but one on whom much was lost. Though he could not imagine that Gibson had no help, by assuming she acted lucidly he at least dignified her more than the British Foreign Office, which thought her nuts. Yet Pennetta was unquestionably handicapped by his inability to speak English; he could not communicate with Gibson or read her few papers and her notebook, should he have wanted to understand her state of mind, which apparently did not much concern him.

Fortunately, Gibson’s inner life interests Saunders, who nonetheless refuses to reduce it to facile formulations and thus confronts the central biographical paradox so succinctly stated by Emily Dickinson: "Biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied." The more we pursue the lives of others, the more they slip away, private, mysterious, elusive. As Saunders acknowledges, "We see, but we see across an impassable distance, another human being, passing from one room to another." Plus, in the case of Violet Gibson, even the public record of her life is obscure. Before she cocked her pistol at the Campidoglio on that "normal Fascist morning," she left no trail of canceled checks, newspaper articles, photographs, personal letters, diaries or discarded lovers, all the detritus out of which a life is recomposed. And after the shooting and subsequent investigation, she receded into history, a mere footnote, if that, in the annals of Italian fascism, where she is typically dismissed as a demented Irish spinster.

Unruffled by the scant historical documentation, Saunders places unknowingness at the center of her book, and it’s a wise unknowingness comfortable with seeing through a glass darkly. "By any definition," she notes,

Violet must be considered mad, at least some of the time, but this does not mean that the whole of her life should be rewritten to fit this conclusion. She was attached to the idea of sacrifice and martyrdom, but this cannot be solely ascribed to religious mania. In the political world around her (to which she paid deep attention), this notion acquired elevated status in the passion narratives of Giacomo Matteotti, the priests George Tyrrell and Ernesto Buonaiuti, the Irish republicans who took part and died in the 1916 Easter Rising.

In the summer of 1926, more certain of diagnosis than Saunders, the Italian psychiatrists questioning her reached their verdict: chronic paranoia. This helped the British Foreign Office strike a deal; Gibson would be certified insane so she could avoid a full trial. (The defense: no one in her right mind would want to kill Mussolini.) Her passport impounded, she would be delivered to the British authorities and, without her consent, confined in a madhouse for the rest of her life.

Motive might be elusive, but not so the effects of one’s action. Among the unintended consequences of Gibson’s assassination attempt was the consolidation of Mussolini’s power. Two other failed attempts to kill Il Duce followed in quick succession, and though Mussolini again emerged unscathed (only Gibson’s bullet touched him), the sequence of near misses frightened him enough to establish a police state, "not on account of myself, because I truly love to live in danger," he professed, "but on account of the Italian people, who work and produce and have a right not to be disturbed by such recurrent happenings." He set about systematically destroying all opposition parties. In November 1926 his new Emergency Law for the Defense of the State shuttered newspapers and banished dissidents–15,000 were deported to internment colonies in the next seventeen years–and his Special Tribunal for the Defense of the State, a military court, reinstituted capital punishment for political crimes.

For Gibson, the consequences were a life deprived of mobility, comradeship and even the comforts of the convent to which she ardently aspired. Saunders presents a cultural history of madness and incarceration among the literati–Zelda Fitzgerald, Lucia Joyce, Vaslav Nijinsky–by stripping madness of its romantic patina and chronicling briefly but with pith the almost three decades Violet Gibson passed at St. Andrew’s Hospital for Mental Diseases in Northampton, that Victorian institution of rectitude described by Saunders as a "grandly appointed warehouse for the useless, the intolerable, and the troublesome."

One of the strengths of The Woman Who Shot Mussolini is the way Saunders, also the author of The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (2000), does not mince words. Whether identifying the lacunas in Gibson’s life or skewering Mussolini and the governments that enabled him, Saunders writes with a clarity of purpose, an eloquence and a satiric edge that refreshes and astonishes. When describing Clara Petacci, the little girl infatuated with Mussolini who offers her life to him and at 20 becomes his lover, for instance, Saunders explains that in 1943 Petacci does indeed give up her life:

slammed up against a wall and shot. Her corpse is transported alongside her lover’s to the Esso gas station at Piazzale Loreto in Milan, where both cadavers are posed for the cameras–his head resting on her breast–before being strung up by the heels. Clara Petacci, the little Fascist, hanging like a prosciutto.

Only an author with a clear moral center can write like this without sounding glib, and Saunders, whose compassion for Gibson pervades every page, is unambiguous as to where she stands.

At St. Andrew’s, Violet Gibson fed the birds, attempted suicide, wrote letters that the staff never mailed. She petitioned for discharge and campaigned to pass her last days in a convent nursing home. None of her wishes were granted, not even the stipulation that she be buried in the Catholic part of the St. Andrew’s cemetery. "The Honorable Violet Gibson," Saunders concludes, "deserved better." And so Gibson disappears, the forgotten of history who tried to change it, the enigma mercifully unsolved–and the one who, here, receives her human due.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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