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

Lead Research Organisation: University of Warwick
Department Name: Film & Television Studies


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 was 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 has required close examination. The cult served various purposes and it has been a 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 were both conventional and evolving. 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 took different forms (it was, for example, more distinctly political in the industrial North and quasi-religious in the South) and the impact of the cult varied 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 by contrast examined the aftermath of the cult, and explored 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 has been 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. Mussolini was taken as the focus of study because he was the first modern dictator to be the object of systematic promotion and adoration. The research has provided fundamental new understandings of the organisation, auto-representation and pattern of rule of Italian fascism. Wider insights have been 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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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
AH/D001919/1 01/10/2006 01/08/2007 £482,508
AH/D001919/2 Transfer AH/D001919/1 01/08/2007 01/04/2011 £399,462
Description The findings have been used in university teaching via the three project documentaries which were distributed to the university teachers who requested them. Additionally, the filmed gallery talks given by project team members at the project exhibition in 2010 have been used in teaching. Further work is ongoing involving teaching at school level.
First Year Of Impact 2010
Sector Education
Impact Types Cultural