circa 1942: Clara Petacci, mistress of Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Claretta Petacci’s family promoted her affair with Mussolini, which flourished despite her having married an air force lieutenant © Getty

In his scandalous tract Eros e Priapo, written in 1945 but considered until 1967 to be too obscene for publication in Italy, the satirical author Carlo Emilio Gadda ridiculed Benito Mussolini as his nation’s “leading Harvester, Fantasist and Ejaculator”. The fascist Italian dictator was not an authentic revolutionary or tyrant, just bombastic and priapic, Gadda asserted.

Mussolini’s numerous flings and prodigious feats of reproduction suggest that Gadda’s verdict contained more than a grain of truth. According to Richard Bosworth, Mussolini fathered five children with Rachele, his long-suffering wife, and nine more by eight other women.

From his early career as a provincial journalist to his ignominious execution by communist partisans at the end of the second world war, brief sexual conquests and longer-lasting lovers paraded through Mussolini’s life. Little wonder that one breathless 2006 book on him is entitled L’harem del Duce.

Amid this cast of paramours and one-nighters, one woman stands out. Claretta Petacci met Mussolini in 1932 (he was 49, she was 20) and began having sex with him in 1936. The pair were shot together in April 1945 and strung up by their heels at a Milan petrol station in front of a jeering mob.

For decades, historians tended not to take Claretta seriously. Renzo De Felice, author of a monumental eight-book biography of Mussolini (1965-97), dismissed her as an apolitical and, historically speaking, unimportant character. Others found her life a source of titillating or sentimental tales, but not much else.

Now, however, a different perspective is emerging. Since 2009, the copious diaries and letters that Claretta wrote during her relationship with Mussolini have started to be published in Italy. “No historian of the regime can now fail to consult the diaries that Claretta scrawled almost every day . . . She obsessively scribbled down every remark her lover directed at her, either over the phone or when they were in more intimate contact,” Bosworth writes.

Readers are fortunate that the Australian-born historian is the first English-language specialist to make extensive use of this material. Bosworth is the author of some fine works on fascism, especially Mussolini’s Italy (2005). He writes with erudition, perceptiveness and humour about Claretta and Mussolini — she called him Ben, and he called her Clara — and about the light cast by their affair on the dictator’s personality, his style of rule and Italian social conditions during his 1922-43 spell as national leader.

Claretta’s family epitomised the snobbish, materialistic Roman bourgeoisie of the early 20th century, says Bosworth. Her father was physician to a cardinal, and the family had a chauffeur-driven car with Vatican number plates. Claretta was “often happy to remain in bed, armed with a box of chocolates, well into the late morning. Jewels and furs could similarly improve her days.”

Notwithstanding their Catholic piety, Claretta’s family promoted her affair with Mussolini, which flourished despite her having married an air force lieutenant in 1934. The Petacci chauffeur drove Claretta to her assignations at Mussolini’s Palazzo Venezia offices. Her mother packed hampers for the couple when Ben took Clara on excursions outside Rome.

Claretta bombarded Mussolini with requests for favours for her family. With remarkable brazenness, so did her mother and sister. Bosworth observes that “deep popular resentment at [the Petaccis’] social climbing and rumoured corruption, as well as a dislike and perhaps envy of the dictator’s unrestrained and flaunted sexuality”, undermined public support for Mussolini as Italy suffered one humiliation after another on battlefronts in east Africa, north Africa and Greece.

The diaries and correspondence reveal Mussolini and Claretta as convinced anti-Semites. In 1938 he denounced Jews as “pigs, a people destined to be wiped out completely”. He assured Claretta that he had felt this way since the early 1920s.

He was also scathing about Italy’s enemies. In his eyes the English were “piggish . . . the most important part of their body is their bum”, Claretta records him as saying. The French were “nauseous”, ruined by syphilis and absinthe. On the other hand, he despaired of his fellow Italians, who were “cowardly”.

Were Ben and Clara in love? Her writings overflow with jealous rants against his other mistresses, yet contain surprisingly lyrical passages of love. In August 1943 she tells him that she and her sister have just done the goose step and sung fascist songs together, and that she is looking for him “in every light and shadow and every dream”.

To judge from her diaries, in which she jotted “sì” (yes) to indicate orgasm, their sex life was pretty energetic — until July 1943, when King Victor Emmanuel III sacked Mussolini as prime minister. The Nazis set him up as puppet dictator of a doomed fascist state in northern Italy, but physical decline set in. Ben saw little of Clara until their attempted joint escape in April 1945.

Even before this, an exhausted Mussolini knew he was a failure. “Goodbye darling. If I could blow up the world with a load of dynamite I would do it,” he tells Claretta in 1944. As Bosworth shows, shared political views as much as sex underpinned their relationship. It is hard not to conclude that Mussolini’s mixture of politics with his emotional life proved a fatal cocktail for Italy.

Claretta: Mussolini’s, Last Lover, by RJB Bosworth, Yale University Press, RRP£18.99/$28, 320 pages

Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe editor

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