Bologna & Predappio, Italy: 

A Strange Encounter & Tea with Mussolini

5 October 2001

Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore/London

San Petronio Statue of Neptune Two of Bologna's leaning towers

Tea with Mussolini ?  Noop, that was a movie made a few years ago.  You can’t have tea with Italy’s wartime dictator now because he was executed in April 1945, but you can certainly visit his birthplace and mausoleum in Predappio in northern Italy.  Last weekend, we flew into Bologna, and then drove around the north of Italy, visiting Predappio and the ancient Byzantine city of Ravenna, and did a little foray into the tiny Republic of San Marino, a mini-state totally surrounded by Italy. 

Bologna, one of Italy’s most elegant and under-discovered cities.  Site of the first university in Christian Europe (the first in Europe was in Cordoba, founded by the Moorish Arabs who once ruled Spain), and still a top university city in Italy, and of course, world famous for spaghetti bolognaise.  We arrived here on a Friday evening, checked into our city-centre hotel, and soon found ourselves indulging in caffé latte and assorted pastries in a café right in the most elegant Piazza Maggiore, a wide square surrounded by the architectural gems of Mediaeval and Renaissance Europe.  Here along the sides of this enormous square, arcaded walks called porticoes, mediaeval towers (including a leaning one, certainly less well known compared to its Pisan counterpart) and massive Romanesque palazzos combined to present what could be one of Italy’s most harmonious and spectacular Mediaeval cityscapes, although the presence of specific magnificent buildings in Florence, Rome and Venice means that Bologna attracts many less tourists than these cities. 

Ceiling, Archiginnasio, Bologna Mussolini souvenir shops in Predappio Il Duce art at his birthplace museum

As we retired for the night, I had a most unusual encounter, something of a pseudo-supernatural nature.  Perhaps, it was the location, at the heart of mediaeval Bologna, where quite possibly many had been slaughtered in brutal battles between feudal lords which had necessitated those tall defensive towers right at the heart of the city, or one of those poor souls who landed up as anatomy samples in the famous medical university nearby – Bologna was well-known as a pioneer in the development of modern surgical techniques.  Or perhaps I was just plain over-sensitive after a rush from office to Heathrow, and then to Bologna.  Whatever it was, I had an unusually unrestful night, feeling the presence of another being in the room, watching and moving near me.  The last time that had occurred was in Budapest 6 years ago, in an eerie old mansion.  I did nothing more than a quick glance beyond at what looked like empty space, and then uttered some silent Buddhist prayers.  I soon fell asleep and almost forgotten this incident, until a few days later when I’m back in London.

Saturday – we woke up and walked around this beautiful city, had breakfast in a little café next to a local market, where the air was as much filled with Beethoven’s concertos from the café, and the neighbourhood signorita’s lament over the fishmonger’s prices.  We bade farewell to the city, passing a boulevard that reminds us of Bologna’s leftist past (Stalingrado), and sped across the foggy plains of Emilia-Romagna, one of Italy’s richest regions and a land once dominated with city states many of which once formed part of the Pope’s personal fief, the Papal States. 

Fascist art Want more Mussolini souvenirs? San Cassiano Cemetery, where Mussolini was buried.

About an hour’s drive from Bologna, we reached the dull industrial city of Forli, where Benito Mussolini once worked as the editor at Forli of a socialist newspaper, La Lotta di Classe (The Class Struggle), and later became the local Socialist Party secretary – that was the time before he switched drastically from being in the far left to the far right, to found the Italian Fascist Party.  Here we struggled through the gridlock traffic that would have scandalized Mussolini (whose Fascist admirers said made Italy “work”) into a small road across the rolling hills to the south, to a little one-street town called Predappio.  This was where Mussolini was born and buried.  

To be fair, the local tourist office did not pretend that Mussolini wasn’t born here.  In fact, its leaflet mentioned that this was also the birthplace of Adone Zoli, a former Prime Minister well known for his anti-Fascist credentials.  And then it went on to describe various Mussolini sites, plus a few mediaeval sites and local gastronomy – as though everybody comes here to enjoy local cheese and piadina (unleavened bread, specifically with tomato and mozzararella cheese, or otherwise with potato and turnip filling), topped with a glass of sangiovese. 

Mussolini's tomb A chapel in the crypt The crypt with a Fascist Guard of Honour

Predappio, for an Italian town, seems to have a higher density of Italian flags than anywhere else, perhaps with the exception of Little Italy, New York.  For a town that is quoted in no English guidebooks apart from the Cadogan Guide to Emilia-Romagna, Predappio has a surprising number of souvenir shops, all of which concentrate on only one theme – Mussolini and fascist souvenirs – Mussolini and fascist symbols on everything ranging from calendars, key chains, t-shirts, postcards, cups, towels, and what-have-you.  Plus paintings, portraits and even sculptures of Il Duce, i.e., The Leader, in various heroic poses.  Unbelievable!  Just imagine if Linz decides to cash in on Hitler…

We parked our car near the amphitheatre-like building in the center of town, where we saw a few tour buses with Italian and German number plates, and headed for Mussolini’s house museum on the hill behind.  A smallish two-storey house with more tourists than there were exhibits to see.  It’s purely an exhibition of fascist propaganda posters and a few Mussolini-themed art objects.  The guys manning the ticket booth were friendly enough, telling us where to find Mussolini’s tomb.  Not sure if this is a state-run museum, or belonging to some obscure Fascist museum trust.  

San Cassiano Cemetery – this was where the Mussolini family mausoleum is found.  The beautiful Romanesque church of San Cassiano greets one at the entrance.  An elegant tree lined path leads to the far end of this cemetery where the church-like mausoleum of Mussolini rises above the surrounding area.  A group of not-so-friendly-looking youth, probably members of some neo-fascist group on their pilgrimage to this shrine of their hero, were leaving the mausoleum, heading for their tour-bus.  We were a little tensed.  Would they be offended by the presence of a non-Aryan Asian visiting the shrine of their leader ?  We had earlier joked about me pretending to be the member of a Japanese ultra-rightist group (since most people here mistook me as Japanese anyway), and G., pretending to be member of the extremist Australian One Nation Party.  Maybe we need that sort of identity now…  Fortunately, we were ignored and proceeded down the crypt of the mausoleum.  Here, flowers and banners were laid across the tombs of the Mussolini family.  Benito’s tomb lies against one wall of the crypt, with his uniform (forgot to take a closer look to see if they were blood-stained…wonder if that was the one he wore when executed by the partisans) and other relics displayed as well.  What was amazing was that a young guy in black fascist uniform and robes stood as guard of honour over there.  He stood still just like any guard one sees at presidential palaces and national war monuments or cemeteries round the world.  He nodded his head when I asked if I could take pictures.  A guest-book and a few leaflets were left on a table in front of the tomb.  The leaflets invite visitors to become members of the Associazione Guardia d’Onore Benito Mussolini, complete with a hotmail address and telephone number.  A less-informed visitor would conclude that Il Duce remains a national hero in this country.

The impressive San Cassiano Church in the cemetery Mussolini's monumental mausoleum

Enough of Fascists and we decided to make our way to the tiny Republic of San Marino.  Small it might be, the republic has an interesting story.  That would merit a separate email.  OK, I will write more. 




Onward To The Republic of San Marino: A Small Republic That Said No To Napoleon

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