Italy's name without shame

Swing with the Mussolini All Star band. Buy T-shirts at the Mussolini shrine. Vote for the Mussolini

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In a Roman jazz bar down the street from the British embassy, a stocky figure with a pugnacious face very much like that of Benito Mussolini plays the piano with gusto, pausing only to tell his band what comes next. The pianist is the dictator's only surviving son, Romano. Despite his age - he is 77 - he tours up and down Italy and widely abroad, performing with his band, called the Romano Mussolini All Stars.

Imagine a son of Adolf Hitler's travelling the world to play jazz; it is inconceivable. But many Italians are still fond of their home-grown Duce, whatever the historians tell them about his warmongering, his friendship with Hitler, his laws against Jews, his gassing of Ethiopians armed with little more than spears, and his jailing and execution of political opponents.

After the war ended in Italy, with an anti-Nazi partisan uprising in which Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci were shot and strung up outside a Milan petrol station in April 1945, no figure similar to France's Charles de Gaulle emerged to bring glory to an otherwise shameful wartime past. Italians have yet to put behind them the two decades of Fascist rule, when the overwhelming majority failed to oppose the regime in any way whatsoever.

Il Duce's offspring have all benefited from what is at best an ambivalent attitude to his legacy. His granddaughter Alessandra (Romano's daughter), 42, sits in the lower legislature and the European Parliament, and her career so far serves as proof that the surname Mussolini is far from being a liability. She started out as a model, posing in skimpy outfits that would surely have made Il Duce blanch, then tried to get an acting career off the ground. She got only limited help from her much more famous aunt, the actress Sophia Loren, and failed to make more than a few modest films.

Her venture into politics has been more successful, with her election as an MP for Naples for the ex-fascist National Alliance in 1992. And her looks and blunt talking made her a popular television chat-show host, although one programme degenerated into a brawl when she called a female left-winger an "ugly communist".

Despite her self-appointed role as keeper of the Mussolini flame, she was for some years very much part of the political mainstream: the National Alliance is the second-biggest party in the coalition led by Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. That has changed, however, as the Alliance's leader, Gianfranco Fini, has turned his back on the Duce and shifted towards the centre.

Three years ago Fini withdrew a statement he had once made calling the dictator the greatest statesman of the 20th century. Alessandra accused him of cynicism and opportunism. She was even more irate when, on a visit to Israel a year later, Fini called the Fascist era and its anti-Semitic laws an "absolute evil". Fini is now deputy premier and Italy's foreign minister.

When I met her during research for a book on the Allied invasion of Sicily that ousted the Duce, Alessandra told me that Fini would have been better advised to leave history to the historians. "It's one thing describing yourself as an ex-fascist and saying that fascism is over," she said, "but how could I stay in the party when he said those things about my grandfather? He's crazy."

Dressed in a red leather miniskirt and boots with stiletto heels, she accepted that the Fascist regime made what she termed "mistakes" - including the alliance with Hitler and anti-Semitic laws that led to the deportation of 6,000 Italian Jews to Nazi death camps. But she refused to describe the Duce's rule as a dictatorship. "A dictatorship is when you have someone who imposes himself on others. When you have consensus it is not a dictatorship," she said, skipping over the fact that Mussolini jailed, tortured and killed many political dissidents.

She was equally bland about the new party she had helped set up, Social Alternative. Her father stepped in to compose its anthem, entitled "The Pride of Being Italian". Alessandra herself sang the words, which include the memorable lines: "Together for the future, the pride of being Italian . . ./The ideals that unite us are our truth." Asked about the party's programme, she talked in robotic style - "national identity", "tradition" - of priorities that amount to a populist platform to rally voters beyond the diehard minority that still looks to Fascism with nostalgia. Her biggest concern was the euro, which she said had sent the cost of living spiralling upwards in Italy. "I like very much the fact that you British stayed outside the euro. It's the best thing you could have done. Lucky you."

Naturally, she called for more security controls to prevent illegal immigration, and for EU-wide incentives to encourage births. Despite a programme as skimpy as the outfits she once wore as a model, and a paltry 1.9 per cent score in regional elections in Rome in April, Alessandra Mussolini has been wooed by Berlusconi, who is urging her to join his coalition.

Berlusconi sees no shame in the Mussolini name. He said last year that the dictator never killed anyone and only sent his opponents away on holiday. The comment sparked a political row, but it reflects the views of many Italians, and not just elderly pensioners. Denis Mack Smith, historian and biographer of Mussolini, once wrote that at the end of his life Il Duce claimed he did not invent fascism, but only exploited fascist tendencies common to all Italians.

Why else would Italy tolerate a veritable cult to the Duce at his final resting place? At the village of Predappio in the Emilia-Romagna region, his body and brain are preserved in separate caskets in the colonnaded family crypt. Volunteers of the Benito Mussolini honour guard, sinister figures with close-cropped hair and black capes, watch over the tomb, which draws several hundred pilgrims and tourists every week. The visitors' book is eloquent. "Duce come back!" says one message. "Thank you for making me an Italian," reads another.

The high street of Predappio is itself a monument to a multimillion-euro business of Fascist kitsch, with shops offering keyrings and calendars, and even perfume and plastic truncheons - all stamped with the familiar, bull-like features.

Benito Mussolini is everywhere - on perfume bottles with his arm raised in the Roman salute, on small statues with chest and jaw thrust forward and arms akimbo, on calendars that sell briskly across Italy, and on dozens of gadgets. Also for sale are T-shirts, printed with swastikas and the words "Waffen SS", as well as a wide choice of wines and beers, at the price of e3 a bottle, each decorated with Mussolini's face and his slogan "Believe, Obey, Fight".

Tourists can also visit Villa Carpena, the Mussolini family home, situated just outside the village. Its restoration is the work of Domenico Morosini, 64, an entrepreneur who has collected Fascist relics for the past three decades. He has christened the place the House of Memories and packed it with relics that give it an eerie atmosphere.

"I get the goose pimples every time I walk into here," he told me, pulling back the sleeve of his black shirt to prove it, as he entered the Duce's study, where Mussolini's violin and his leather beauty case, complete with syringe for injections, are on display. In the bedroom, a grey uniform lies on his side of the bed, and in the dining room the socks and bonnet that his wife, Rachele, knitted for his trips to Germany are under glass. His skis and tennis rackets still bear police stickers dating back to the seizure of all family property, including toothbrushes, that followed his death.

Back in Rome, Alessandra is determined to preserve the legacy. She has taken advantage of an Italian law allowing her to pass the surname to her children. The name Mussolini has much life in it yet.

John Follain's Mussolini's Island: the invasion of Sicily through the eyes of the people who witnessed the campaign is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 1 August