“Let’s hear your speech now, let’s hear your speech,” an emboldened onlooker barked. It was the morning of April 29, 1945; a reply was unlikely. The firing squad had done its job. Now, dumped off a truck like a waterlogged mattress into Milan’s Piazzale Loreto, Benito Mussolini’s dead body had been riddled with bullets all over again, stomped upon, spat at, cursed at and urinated on by a mass of his former subjects. One of its eyeballs was lacerated and swelling with fluid. Its cranium was cracked, its cerebellum crushed. Dislodged bone jackknifed through its sinus cavity and palate. And before it was strung up over a gas station by its fat feet, Sergio Luzzatto tells us, someone reached into the static center of that turbulent mob and laid Mussolini’s sallow, bald head between the stiffening breasts of his mistress, splayed beside him. This, like everything done in the piazza that morning by Milan’s fuming citizenry, betrayed one implacable assumption: that the sting of sarcasm would not be lost on a dead body.
Death has long occupied a special place in the publishing industry’s staple crop of biographies: the end. But the rules of biographies are rapidly being stretched or tossed out entirely. Abstract ideas are now fair and compelling subjects, as in Charles Seife’s Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea; so are inanimate objects, as in Holley Bishop’s Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey. Luzzatto, a professor of history at the University of Turin, the author of four previous political histories and a regular commentator for Italy’s two major daily newspapers, has breathed a new, peculiar life into the form by writing the biography of a corpse. The Body of Il Duce shows Mussolini as a man who, in becoming an inanimate object, also became an abstract idea. Death is only this story’s beginning.
There has never been a shortage of dead bodies in the world. Yet Luzzatto couldn’t have delivered what is presumably the first dead-body biography at a more suitable or more energetic moment in the cultural history of cadavers. Dead bodies have suddenly become the life of the party. It’s a regular Weekend at Bernie’s out there. Only a few months ago, America was grousing over the living corpse of Terri Schiavo and gushing over the Pope’s still-tepid one. In the wake of Katrina, a lone cadaver on Union Street, neglected for days in an abandoned New Orleans, became an indictment of the Bush Administration. It’s beginning to seem as though at the center of every shouting match and scandal lies a dead body–stock-still, neither assenting nor objecting.
Mussolini’s body led an extraordinary afterlife, worthy of a biographer of Luzzatto’s enthusiasm and skill. Born out of bullets, Il Duce’s corpse was beaten, hung, buried, exhumed, stolen by neo-Fascists, hunted down, gossiped about, hidden for more than a decade by the Italian government, smuggled out of the convent of Cerro Maggiore in a box marked CHURCH DOCUMENTS and finally in 1957 reinterred–a string of misadventures and minor triumphs engineered, in every case, for someone’s political advantage. His was the hardest-working corpse in Italy.
By 1945, when Mussolini’s corpse hit that piazza, Italians were already fluent in the symbolic “language of bodies,” writes Luzzatto. They had had an early education in the subject with the brutal assassination of Giacomo Matteotti, Mussolini’s early Socialist rival, in 1924. Fascists beat Matteotti to death and, after sexually assaulting his corpse, unloaded it in the woods, where it lay undiscovered for two months. (Within days of Mussolini’s execution, rumors spread that Matteotti’s son had slipped into the ranks of the firing squad to avenge his father’s death.) The popular memory of this body tainted Mussolini’s reign, just as the dead body of Mussolini haunted Italy as the nation tried to reinvent itself after World War II.