PREDAPPIO, Italy— For the last decade, throngs of tourists — as many as 100,000 in a single year — have descended on this quiet rural village of just over 6,000 people in northern Italy. The lure is not natural beauty or Roman aqueducts or travel-worthy regional cooking. It is the long-dead Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. This is the town where Mussolini was born, on July 29, 1883.
And while some come here out of historical curiosity, the way you might stop at the birthplace of an American president if you were passing through, most come to pay homage to the blacksmith’s son who would become the youngest prime minister that Italy had yet seen.
In time for the Oct. 28 centennial of his March on Rome that delivered Mussolini to power, photographer Stefano Morelli and I traveled to Predappio for what I call the “Ventennio,” or “20 years,” tour, Italian shorthand for the two decades of fascism over which Mussolini presided. Our first stop: a 15-euro guided tour of the house where Mussolini lived with his second wife, Rachele Guidi, and their five children.
Villa Mussolini, the former Villa Carpena, is situated just beyond the Predappio town limits. On display in the garden is Mussolini’s 1933 Freccia Oro motorcycle. Inside, there is the study where Mussolini worked; the uniform he wore in Milan on April 25, 1945, three days before he was shot to death by an Italian partisan; and the mirror in which, according to our tour guide, those susceptible to images of power and receptive to messages from the beyond can glimpse Il Duce’s frozen reflection staring back at them.
In the garden behind the villa, an excommunicated Catholic priest, Father Giulio Maria Tam, presides over what can only be called a fascist Mass. Tam has been known to tell his audience that his “real tunic is a black shirt, size XXL.” It is a reference to the volunteer Blackshirts, or Camicie Nere, who made up the paramilitary wing of Italy’s National Fascist Party.
To commence, Tam says, “Comrade, at the ready!” and the assembled stomp their feet once in unison. “Comrade, attention!” he says next. They stomp again. Tam goes on to attack homosexuals, immigrants, and even the Pope. “You look at the state of the church at this moment,” he says, “look at how religion has been diminished. Pope Francis has peaked. Religion appears to be made of peace, mercy, and good Samaritans. This is the Red Cross, not the Catholic Church! So what does Mussolini say? History will prove that I’m right.” The gathered give the one-arm fascist salute — outlawed in Italy — over and over. Some are overheard to say, “Bravo,” “Well said,” and “He’s right.”
The villa’s owner, Domenico Morosini, renovated the building and rebranded it the Villa Mussolini in the early 2000s, after buying it from one of Mussolini’s sons. Today, he says, visitors come from “France, Slovakia, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Spain, United States, the UK . . . they come from all over.”
And their numbers are up. According to data collected by the province of Forlì-Cesena, where Predappio sits nestled among verdant hills in the Emilia-Romagna region, the number of Italians who visited the village in 2015 more than tripled over the previous year. Over the same period, the number of foreign tourists increased more than 10-fold.
“I came to introduce my children to the right side of history,” a trader from Veneto, who had brought along his 12- and 15-year-olds, tells us proudly. An Austrian doctor who has come with his wife says, “If Mussolini came back, he would put things right in Europe.”
Our next stop was Predappio Tricolore, one of three booming fascism nostalgia shops in the town center, which operate in spite of Italy’s 1952 Scelba Law, prohibiting the sale of propaganda and merchandise that offer “apologias” for the fascist regime. The law’s application has been inconsistent at best. Perhaps nowhere is this more the case than in Predappio.
“I’ve had this license since ’83,” says Pierluigi Pompignoli, the shop’s owner. “The souvenirs that we have here of Mussolini sell like the Pope sells in Rome.” He points out specially packaged packets of Mussolini sugar. The merchandise also includes bronze busts of Il Duce, swastika-bedecked clothing, commemorative truncheons, and bottles of olio di ricino, or castor oil, administered in large doses to Mussolini’s enemies. To this day in Italy, the phrase “usare l’olio di ricino,” or “to use castor oil,” means to force someone to do something against their will.
Elsewhere on the shelves are wine, beer, and coffee mugs emblazoned with Mussolini’s strong-jawed profile or Adolf Hitler’s mustachioed visage. Ladies’ thong underwear bears the fascist motto “Boia chi molla,” or “Death to those who surrender.” A white cotton baby’s onesie features a child performing the one-arm fascist salute alongside the words, “Educhiamoli da piccoli,” or “Let’s educate them as children.” The shop does a brisk online business with customers around the world.
Our final stop is Mussolini’s crypt, reopened in 2019 for year-round viewing (the Mussolini family had it closed in 2017) by right-wing Brothers of Italy-backed Mayor Roberto Canali, whose election that year ended more than 70 years of left-wing rule in the village.
Canali said that he wanted to promote the crypt as a tourist attraction to help boost the local economy, and it has indeed helped. Fascism tourism is the only industry in this village. Revenues from tour tickets, memorabilia sales, restaurants, and hotel lodging generate 20 million euros a year for the local economy.
The crypt, reportedly the third-most visited final resting place in the world, behind those of Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley, hosts a parade of people nostalgic for fascism. They have come to lay flowers and to kiss the plaque bearing Mussolini’s name. Their ages span half a century. Few dress in a way that would identify their political leanings. They look like people who might live next door.
It is their comments that reveal them:
“What this man has done is inexplicable. Something that no other man has been able to do. We are those who want his return. Long live Il Duce.”
“Mussolini is an example to be followed.”
“Giorgia [Meloni] is one of us. Now you will see how things change.”
“I believe in Trump.”
Stefano Morelli is an Italian photographer and visual anthropologist. His work has been published in The Washington Post, The Guardian, and publications in Italy, Spain, Austria, Germany, and Qatar. Follow him on Instagram @stefanomorelliphoto.