Here’s an obscure and arcane tidbit from Italian history. Benito Mussolini wrote a popular bodice ripper before coming to power. I know, right? In 1909, Mussolini was 26 and serving as the secretary to a trade union organization in Trento and moonlighting as an office worker for the local Socialist Party. While in Trento, he tried his hand at some essays about German literature (huh?), a (morbid and gory) short story and a novel, co-written with someone called Santi Corvaja. The novel, L’amante del Cardinale: Claudia Particella, romanzo storico (The Cardinal’s Mistress) was published in installments in the Trento newspaper Il Popolo from 20 January to 11 May 1910. Mussolini hated the Catholic Church for its power (he referred to priests as ‘black germs’) and, as you might intuit from the title, The Cardinal’s Mistress was highly anticlerical.
I’ve not yet been able to get a copy of the book, which actually sounds like a pretty painful read. Very purple. The story is about Emanuele Madruzzo (the fictional Cardinal of Trento during the papal reign of Alexander VII in the mid-1700s), his mistress Claudia Particella, and their sad love affair. Madruzzo wants to resign his office and legitimize the relationship, but the pope won’t let him. The couple has many enemies who seek to destroy them. The evil Don Benizio could help them, but only if Claudia will yield to his lust She says, “No way!” Assassins are recruited to kill her; finally they succeed in drugging her wine and she dies. The end. In addition to the gripping plot, the book is filled with lots of anti-church rants and portraits of the greed and vengefulness of the clergy.
Here’s a quote I managed to find online. It’s when Don Benizio is trying to seduce the beauteous Claudia:
Don Benizio wept like a boy. And like a boy he knelt at Claudia’s feet. With broken phrases, interrupted by terrible groans which burst from his breast, with words which were in turn puerile, disordered, suave, and terrible, with the desperate gestures of one who has been crushed, he begged love, pardon, pity.
“Do not cast me into the abyss. Do not make me drain the bitter cup of vengeance. Cast a ray of your light into my darkened soul.”
Then phrases of mystic adoration hurtled past his lips. (Hee! Literary commentary mine). “I will build you a secret altar in the depths of my conscience. You will be the Madonna of the temple within me. I will be your slave. Strike me, despise me, beat me, open my veins with a subtle dagger, but grant me the revelation of yourself, grant that I may speak to you, grant that I may lose myself with you in the supreme illusion.”
But Don Benizio’s eloquence did not move Claudia. Then the priest returned to thoughts of vengeance.
“Ah, you do not listen to me, shameless courtesan, harlot. Well, I shall come to get you in this same castle. I shall let the common brutes of the market-place satiate their idle lusts on your sinful body. You shall be the mockery of the unreasoning mob. Your corpse will not have the rites of Christian burial. You will be cast into the field of the Badia with the witches. And when the hour of your agony comes, when, trampled on, transfixed and rent by the blows of the mob, you shall implore aid and succour with the eyes which now so disdainfully regard me, I shall be the evil demon of that supreme hour, I shall come to torture you with memories of me, to gloat in my triumph.”
Apparently the serialization was pretty well received, although it faded from view until Mussolini became famous as Il Duce, at which point it was resurrected and published in book form in Italian, German, and English in 1927. But Mussolini’s status as celebrity author was short-lived. In 1929, he made a truce with the Vatican when he signed the Lateran Treaty. Among other things, the Vatican acknowledged Italian sovereignty over the former Papal States and Italy recognized papal sovereignty over Vatican City and paid £30 million to the pope in compensation. At that stage, it seemed a good idea to pull The Cardinal’s Mistress out of circulation.
OK, here’s the best part. The novel was reviewed by my beloved Dorothy Parker in the 15 September 1928 issue of the New Yorker. There are rumours that this is the book about which she famously quipped, “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force,” but that is more likely to be Atlas Shrugged. This is an excerpt from the review:
”When I am given a costume romance beginning, ‘From the tiny churches hidden within the newly budding verdure of the valleys, the evensong of the Ave Maria floated gently forth and died upon the lake,’ my only wish is that I, too, might float gently forth and die, and I’m not particular whether it’s upon the lake or dry land.”
I’m just glad she’s not around to critique my novel.