The Cult of the Duce: Mussolini and the Italians 1918-2005

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Holloway University of London


The cult of Mussolini is central to an understanding of twentieth century Italy and, more widely, to the role of charisma in modern history. Mussolini was the first political leader to harness systematically the techniques of theatre, the visual arts and the mass media to a personalised system of rule. The cult was vital to the way Italian Fascism became a regime, integrating the population in a system of consensus that appeared solid until it was undermined by the setbacks of World War Two.
The aim of the project is to investigate the origins, nature, purposes, functioning and impact of the cult. The background to the emergence of narratives of exceptionality around Mussolini is to be found in the heroic era of the Risorgimento and the failure, in the subsequent period, of efforts to elevate Italy to the status of a great power. It is also to be related to the manner in which mass politics developed in a context of very limited franchise and widespread illiteracy. There was no direct equivalent of Goebbels in Italy and therefore the role of several key players requires close examination. The cult served various purposes and it will be the task of the project to identify, compare and weigh these. For example, for some it was an integral feature of Fascism's general project to reform the Italians. For others, it was a means of securing support for the regime and countering the influence of the King and the Pope. The cult manifested itself primarily, but by no means only, through visual means. It drew on existing visual archetypes and forged new ones related to new media. Therefore its aesthetics require assessment. The regime orchestrated Mussolini's appearances and it used various means to sound public opinion and test his popularity or otherwise. The responses of Italians of different regions and classes require study, as does the impact of the cult over time. It is usually assumed that the cult came to an end with Mussolini's overthrow in 1943, with an epilogue between 1943 and 1945. This project will not accept this as a given, but will examine the aftermath of the cult, that is to say the residues of it that have persisted in Italian culture and politics, and in popular memory, down to the present.
The question of the cult is an appropriate one to research in the present context because issues of the media and politics, and of the construction of charisma, are highly topical. It is right that Mussolini should constitute the first focus of such a study because he was the first modern dictator to be the object of systematic promotion and adoration. The research will provide fundamental new understandings of the organisation, auto-representation and pattern of rule of Italian fascism. Wider insights will be gained into the following issues: the visual culture of fascism, charisma and consensus, the media and politics, the presentation of the leader in modern mass politics.


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Title Mussolini and Fascism, Documentary using archival footage & original shot material. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Title Mussolini in post-war Italy, Documentary using archival footage & original shot material. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Title The Town of Predappio, Documentary using archival footage & original shot material. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Description The research explored the dynamics of the personality cult of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. It found that the personality cult took various forms and that it manifested itself in a variety of spheres including public rituals, press and propaganda, material culture and the visual arts, the mass media and commercial culture. Precisely the complexity of the cult means that it needs to be conceptualized as a modern cultural phenomenon and not simply as an instrument of rule. This cultural approach can be taken to other personality cults which can be studied in a variety of comparative ways.
Exploitation Route Through academic study, exhibition of material manifestations of cults, and in approaches to cultural heritage and museum displays.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Our findings formed the basis of an exhibition at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London.
First Year Of Impact 2009
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural