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Claretta by R.J.B. Bosworth

Claretta by R.J.B. Bosworth
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Claretta Petacci first met Benito Mussolini in 1932, when the dictator had been in power for ten years. He was 49 and she was 20, but she had long been a fervent admirer of Il Duce. Motoring to the seaside resort of Ostia, Claretta, the daughter of Pope Pius XI’s physician, spotted Mussolini in his Alfa Romeo, and ordered her chauffeur to follow him. Within days, she was visiting his headquarters and reading him her poems. The couple’s affair – which lasted until their deaths in 1945 – was conducted with the full connivance of Claretta’s parents, who were eager to exploit the benefits it conferred. Her mother, in particular, was a “ruthless and avid seeker” of preferment, said Caroline Moorehead in Literary Review. Just like her daughter, Signora Petacci went out of her way to accommodate Mussolini, even installing huge mirrors on the walls and ceiling of Claretta’s bedroom. Based on Claretta’s extensive diaries and letters, Bosworth’s book is a “captivating” portrait of their affair.

Sex with the “Great Ejaculator” was “invariably rough, brutal and short”, said Gerard DeGroot in The Times. He was a “selfish lover” with “colossal” appetites, which meant that Claretta had to share him with a “vast collection” of other mistresses. (Mussolini fathered five legitimate children, and at least another nine illegitimately, by eight different women.) Yet none of this seems to have unduly bothered Claretta, for whom “sex and power were inextricably linked”. Mussolini’s braggadocio, in particular, worked “like an aphrodisiac”, said Ian Thomson in The Spectator. While he boasted about having the “most beautiful body in Italy”, she described him as radiating “god-like potency” and “bull-like” magnetism. This is a detailed, “absorbing” book.

“Romeo and Juliet they were not, but there were happy times,” said Miranda Seymour in The Daily Telegraph. Mussolini would serenade Claretta on his violin; they’d listen to Beethoven together (“a shame that he was a Jew,” Mussolini would say). Sex grew problematic, but Claretta’s father supplied Il Duce with a fore-runner of Viagra, Hormovin. After 1943, when Mussolini was installed as a puppet dictator in northern Italy, their meetings grew fewer. In April 1945, with the Allies closing in, they tried to escape together to Switzerland, but were captured, executed and strung up side by side in Milan. Claretta, who “never ceased to believe” in Mussolini, was “loyal to the degrading end”.

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