Mussolini's bunker opens to the public

Villa Torlonia had many spaces used by former Italian leader Benito Mussolini, including this bedroom (left).
Villa Torlonia had many spaces used by former Italian leader Benito Mussolini, including this bedroom (above). PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

ROME • Deep beneath the historic Villa Torlonia, where Benito Mussolini lived for nearly two decades, a wine cellar repurposed in 1941 as a bunker to protect the Fascist leader was recently opened to the public.

Even in a city stratified with centuries of history, the damp underground space is a telling sign of how deeply Italy's relatively recent past can stay buried.

The opening of the bunker last autumn was the latest step in the ongoing restoration of the spraw- ling villa compound, which the aristocratic Torlonia family rented to Mussolini and his family from 1925 until his arrest and death in 1943.

Inside what is now a popular park, the complex of nine buildings erected between 1797 and 1920 also provides a unique window on the history of taste - and the Torlonias' ability to cosy up to whomever was in power, reaching back even before the family's bank was favoured by the Vatican.

After World War II, the villa fell into ruin, a result of family inheritance battles but also of Italy's uncertainty about what to do with a site so closely linked to the dictator.

In 1977, the compound, in a residential area just outside Rome's historic centre, was claimed by the city, which opened the grounds to the public the next year and, starting in the 1990s, mustered the funding and political will to restore the buildings.

Ms Alberta Campitelli, an art historian who, as director of Rome's historic villas and parks, has overseen the restoration, says: "It took a long time - people weren't ready for it. There had been a cancellation of history. It was still too painful."

Generally, Italy has been reluctant to come to terms with and call attention to Fascist sites, including Mussolini's headquarters in the Palazzo Venezia in downtown Rome. Partly that is a result of fears that neo-Fascists would flock to such sites, as happens regularly in Predappio, Mussolini's birthplace in northern Italy.

Even if the bunker exhibition is fairly modest, Villa Torlonia has become a notable exception, especially the restoration of the Casino Nobile, the main house where Mussolini lived, which opened as a museum in 2006 under the left-wing mayor Walter Veltroni.

The villa's grounds also contain ancient Jewish catacombs discovered in 1918 and not open to the public. It was at Villa Torlonia in 1938 that Mussolini announced racial laws stripping Jews of citizenship and removing them from many professions.

The Casino Nobile now features a small museum dedicated to the Roman School of anti-Fascist artists active between the 1920s and 1940s, including the writer and painter Carlo Levi.

Today, plans are in the works to build a Holocaust museum in a lot adjacent to the villa.

Mussolini's bunkers, which were never used, can be visited only by appointment on guided visits organised by Sotterranei di Roma, a cultural association to which the city outsourced the tours for lack of funding, Ms Campitelli said.

The newly restored bunker features a small exhibition with gas masks, leaflets sent ahead of rare Allied bombing raids during the war and recordings of the sounds of air raid sirens.

More than 1,500 visitors have come since it opened last autumn, often older Romans who remembered the war, said Mr Lorenzo Grassi of Sotterranei di Roma.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2015, with the headline Mussolini's bunker opens to the public. Subscribe