For reasons that need no elucidation, I spent a few hours this morning watching Benito Mussolini, the dictator of Italy from 1925 to 1945, performing in the old newsreel clips that now float around the internet. It wasn’t the verbal content I was after, just the imagery. The staged entrances. The gesticulation, the posturing, the arms raised in salute. The beautiful backdrops, the flags hanging from the ancient stone buildings of Rome, Palermo, Verona, Milan.
Il Duce—“the Leader,” the name called out by the crowds in the videos—was a short, balding, unattractive man. But he prepared himself carefully for public appearances, showing a camera awareness ahead of its time. Sometimes he wore suits, but he also wore a wide variety of military uniforms. Presumably to hide his missing hair, he often wore hats—simple berets or more elaborate, ceremonial head coverings, decorated with rooster feathers, animal fur, or national insignia.
He also had a sense of what other kinds of imagery would attract attention. Once, he stripped off his shirt and stacked hay with peasants. He wrestled, playfully, with a young lion. He presided, regally, over the elaborate marriage of his daughter to an Italian aristocrat, Galeazzo Ciano, in a grand society wedding at Saint Peter’s Basilica. Later, he made his son-in-law foreign minister. Later still, in 1944, he had Ciano shot.